In both Missouri and Kansas, schools call police on Black students at a higher rate. (Mary Ann Lawrence/USA TODAY)

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In Kansas, Missouri and across the country, public schools call the police on Black students more often than on white students, according to federal data analyzed by the Center for Public Integrity. Black students also are referred to police more often than the average rate for all students.

Advocates say it’s because of “big systemic issues” such as racism and inequality. They’re also concerned with police being in schools at all.

In response, many local schools are working to address discipline issues through other methods, like restorative justice.

Marcus Harris, director of security for Kansas City Public Schools, has seen this work firsthand.

In 2019, a group of students was caught breaking into the empty Scarritt Elementary building.

But instead of pressing charges, the district worked with the Center for Conflict Resolution to help the students understand why what they did was wrong, Harris said.

“When I first got here in 2007, that kid would have went through the juvenile court for burglary, damaging property,” Harris said. “And so that’s how far we’ve come. We’re trying to work with children and try to prevent them from having a criminal record.”

The approach can help address a growing concern that when schools involve police, it leads to negative consequences for students — especially Black students.

Black students referred to police at higher rates

Nationwide, the Center for Public Integrity’s analysis of 2017-18 federal data found Black students are referred to the police at a rate of 8.4 per thousand, more than twice the rate for white students. The data is the latest available.

Students with disabilities face a similar disparity: A previous Beacon analysis found some Kansas City-area districts refer students with disabilities to police at two or three times the average rate. 

In Kansas, the differences are even more dramatic. The state’s schools refer Black students to police at a rate of 9.6 per thousand, more than twice the state average and nearly three times the rate for white students.

In Missouri, overall police referral rates exceed the national average. Schools refer Black students to police about 20% more often than the state’s overall rate, while referrals for white students are slightly below the Missouri overall rate. 

The Kansas City metro area is no exception, though disparities vary. 

The 2017-18 data shows KCPS, a large district consisting of more than 90% students of color, referred 17 students to the police — all of whom were Black or Hispanic. Two of the referrals ended in arrests. 

But several local districts have overall referral rates nearly 10 times higher than that of KCPS and with more pronounced racial disparities. 

For example, the Blue Springs School District referred 188 students to police in the 2017-18 school year, one of highest reported numbers in Missouri or Kansas. KCPS had about 1,800 more students at the time.

Nearly 20% of Blue Springs’ referrals were of Black students, despite Black students making up less than 11% of district students at the time, according to the data. Meanwhile, white students made up more than 70% of district students but about 56% of referrals. Civil Rights Data Collection information also shows more than 50 arrests for the district. 

Asked by The Kansas City Beacon about the federal data, Blue Springs found 25 fewer overall police referrals in its internal records, but spokesperson Katie Woolf did not explain the discrepancy or break down the number by race. 

In Park Hill, a northern Kansas City district, data showed that referral rates for Black students were more than 80% above the district average —  and more than twice the rate for white students. The district overall had 187 police referrals but reported no arrests. 

In Johnson County, Kansas, the Shawnee Mission School District reported it referred Black students at a rate more than 50% higher than the district average. White students were referred at a rate slightly below the district average. The large district had 308 total referrals and more than 50 arrests. 

The federal data, which is self-reported by districts to the U.S. Department of Education, doesn’t explain why students were referred or the consequences of the referrals. 

The data also might not capture all referrals, as districts interpret reporting guidelines differently. 

The Department of Education asks districts to include reports to “any law enforcement agency or official, including a school police unit, for an incident that occurs on school grounds, during school-related events (in-person or virtual), or while taking school transportation, regardless of whether official action is taken.”

Advocates say racism leads to harsher responses to Black students’ behavior

The problem is caused by “really big systemic issues like education inequality and racism within the educational system” leading teachers and law enforcement to respond differently to students of color, said Sharon Brett, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Kansas.

Ronald Carter, co-chair of the education task force for grassroots advocacy group More2, agreed schools treat Black students’ misbehavior as more serious and worthy of discipline. 

Earlier this year, More2 successfully advocated for changes to the KCPS code of conduct, focusing on reducing suspensions for younger students. 

Suspensions can lead to further disciplinary issues or dropping out of school, Carter said, and they were being given disproportionately to Black students, especially Black boys with disabilities. 

“They seem to be judged much harsher for their actions as opposed to when the majority population is doing the same thing,” he said. “Our school district is dominated by … young white women teachers. Sometimes there’s a feeling that there’s just a social or cultural disconnect.”

ACLU: Police presence in schools is harmful

Representatives of the Kansas and Missouri branches of the American Civil Liberties Union said there’s one major way to protect students: taking police out of schools. 

“Our concerns with school resource officers in schools is that there’s no evidence that increased police presence in schools improves school safety,” said Luz María Henríquez, director of the ACLU of Missouri

Instead, research shows that police in schools can negatively affect school climate and that students of color, especially Black students, bear the brunt of the impact, she said.

In 2020, the Missouri ACLU sent a letter to several Missouri districts, including Hickman Mills and Raytown in the Kansas City area, calling for the districts to remove school resource officers. The letter cited a 2014 incident in which a police officer handcuffed a 7-year-old Black student at a KCPS school for crying in class. 

Brett, with the Kansas ACLU, said police aren’t oriented to support students. 

“Police are trained to enforce the law and hold people accountable for their actions,” she said. “The mode and methodology of policing is entirely inconsistent with what students actually need to be healthy and thrive in their schools.”

For students of color who may have had negative experiences with law enforcement outside of school, having police in school makes it “threatening and scary,” she said.

Looking at the whole child and not just the discipline of the child has really reframed the way we do business.

Jason roberts, president of Kansas City Federation of Teachers & School-related Personnel

Brett also said Kansas’ juvenile justice system is flawed. For example, a 2020 report from the National Juvenile Defender Center found youth often don’t have adequate representation as they go through the court system.

“When you have police in schools, you are essentially setting up an entry point into the system within the school walls,” she said. “And when you’re funneling people into the system, there’s a host of consequences that come with that.”

Leslie Foreman, a spokesperson for the Kansas City Police Department, said in an email that the department’s school resource officers focus on external threats. 

“The number one function of a school resource officer is to be there to ensure safety and protection of the students, faculty and staff from threats from the outside. Occasionally that function means taking enforcement action regarding crimes that occur inside the schools Involving a student.”

Local schools’ efforts to address racial disparities 

Local districts say they want to reduce disparities. 

In April, the Shawnee Mission School District plans to review its policing practices to address inequities, Chief Communications Officer David Smith said.

For example, about 40% of the district’s reported police referrals are tobacco-related, Smith said. Those referrals might not have consequences for students beyond a phone call to home, but there’s no consistent policy in the district. 

Policing disparities in Park Hill helped motivate the district to focus on equity in its latest school improvement plan, said Terri Deayon, director of access, inclusion and family engagement for the district. 

The district’s focus on racial justice recently intensified after students circulated a petition to bring back slavery

Park Hill officials say the district is increasingly emphasizing restorative practices, which have succeeded in other districts

The approach emphasizes repairing harm rather than doling out punishment. 

Jason Roberts, president of the Kansas City Federation of Teachers & School-Related Personnel and a recent high school teacher in the district, said KCPS has been moving in a positive direction. 

Having a greater police presence in schools “creates a feeling that that school is bad, and I think we’re beginning to wipe that away,” he said. He sees an increased sense of safety and morale among students.

While KCPS has school resource officers from the Kansas City Police Department in three district schools, most of its security staff are employed by the district and screened to ensure they can work well with children, said Harris, the security director. 

As part of its restorative justice approach, the district now does in-house mediation with students when incidents occur. 

Roberts said using restorative practices is a big part of the district’s success. 

“Looking at the whole child and not just the discipline of the child has really reframed the way we do business.”

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Maria Benevento

Maria Benevento is the education reporter at The Kansas City Beacon. She is a Report for America corps member.